I. The “What is
Socrates asked a simple kind of question that revolutionized philosophy: “
What is it
Usually raised about significant moral or aesthetic qualities (e.g., justice, courage,
wisdom, temperance, beauty).
Such questions are the central concern of the “Socratic” (early) dialogues of Plato.
A so-called “Socratic definition” is an
to a “What is
Socratic definitions are not of words, but of
. Socrates does not want to know what
the word ‘justice’ means, but what the
of justice itself is.
A correct Socratic definition is thus a true description of the essence of the thing to be
defined. I.e., definitions can be true or false.
II. The Importance of Socratic Definitions
A. They are objective.
Socrates was opposed to the moral relativism of the Sophists.
He believed that there were objective moral standards; that they could be
; that there were right and wrong answers to moral questions that went
beyond mere opinion and popular sentiment.
B. They are fundamental for knowledge.
Socrates claims that until you know what a thing is, you can’t answer any
other questions about it.
So any inquiry into any moral question presupposes an answer to the
relevant “What is
?” question. Not just that there
such an answer, but that the
inquirer is in possession of it.
E.g., in the
, Socrates claims that you cannot answer a question
virtue (“Can it be taught?”) until you have answered a more fundamental
In general, he thought that a person’s having knowledge involving a
, depends upon his knowing the correct answer to the “What is
C. They are fundamental for morality.
He thought that the possibility of morality (moral character, moral
behavior) depended on knowledge of definitions.
Virtue is knowledge: if you know what is right, you will do what is right.
Knowing a Socratic definition is thus (apparently) necessary and sufficient for
III. The Objectivity of Definitions
A. Objective fact vs. opinion
The definition of a moral quality is not a matter of what people
. You cannot determine
what goodness, or justice, or piety, is by conducting a poll. Consequently, whether something or
a given moral quality is also not a matter of mere opinion. Whether an act or a
person is good, or just, or pious, for example, is not to be settled by a vote.
gives us a good example of Socrates’ belief that moral qualities are
conventional. Euthyphro suggests that piety can be defined as
what the gods all love